Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Del Toro, Jackson talk The Hobbit

Okay, so I'm a day late and a dollar short on this one (blame the long weekend and a lack of internet access), but the WetaHolics Web site recently posted a transcription of a series of Q&As that fans and Weta staff asked of director Guillermo del Toro and producer Peter Jackson regarding the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit. You can find the complete transcript here. Thanks to Trollsmyth for tipping me off to this event.

Following are some highlights from the transcript and my own thoughts on the exchange (note that I'm dropping my comments into the Q&A; I unfortunately was not part of the dialogue :).

WetaHost: Peter: What was it about Guillermo that made you feel he was the right guy to continue on the saga of Middle-earth? Are the two of you on the same page for the vision, direction, and style that these movies will have? If the two of you disagree on a point, who wins out?

Peter Jackson: I'll talk more about this in a later question, but watching his films, he has respect for fantasy. He understands it, he's not frightened by it. Guillermo also understands character, and how the power of any movie is almost always linked to how closely we empathize with characters within the story. His work shows great care and love for the main characters he creates. He also has supreme confidence with design, and visual effects. So many film makers are scared of visual effects - which is no crime, but tough if you're doing one of these movies! If we disagree, the director has to win, because you should never force a director to shoot something they don't believe in. But we're both reasonably practical and ego-free, and I believe that if we disagree, we both have the ability to express our differing theorys - state our case, like lawyers - and between us, work out what's best for the movie.

Me: I'm glad that Jackson is giving Del Toro plenty of freedom on The Hobbit. Movies are definitely one of those mediums in which too many cooks can spoil the broth, and create a watered-down, safe, boring product. However, I'm also glad that Jackson will be providing a fair amout of input.

Eriol: So what age rating are you aiming at?
Peter Jackson: Hi Eriol - the rating will be the same as the Trilogy, PG13 on both movies
Guillermo del Toro: An intense PG-13...

Me: Exactly as I had expected. Surprisingly, many across the internet were expecting a PG-children's film, but with the success of The Lord of the Rings, I knew that there was no way New Line and Jackson were going to mess with the audience or the formula.

WetaHost: In the Hobbit book, we have talking trolls and the Eagles and Smaug talks as well, however in the LOTR Trilogy, trolls did no more than grunt, Fellbeasts screamed, and the Eagles, who were meant to talk, just stayed silent. How much will the portayle of such animals change in the Hobbit?

Guillermo del Toro: I think it should be done exactly as in the book- the “talking beast” motif has to exist already to allow for that great character that is Smaug. It is far more jarring to have a linear movie and then – out of the blue – a talking Dragon.

Me: My confidence in del Toro is rising. More Tolkien=better product (see The Lord of the Rings films, which were at their best when they hewed closest to the source material).

WetaHost: Hi. Do you intend to play this one by the Book (The Hobbit that is) and make it a very light childrens tale on film, or do you plan to stick with the much darker treatment- in keeping with the LotR films - particularly the latter ones. My personal preference would be for the latter - cannot see how eg. the Rivendell Elves could regress from their nobility in LotR to those "...Tra-la-la-la...." singing versions which were in teh Hobbit Book. Thank you.

Guillermo del Toro: We’ll see about the “Tra-la-la-" later- but the book, I believe, in echoing the “loss of innocence” England experienced after WWI, is a passage form innocence to a darker, more somber state- The visual / thematic progression should reflect that in the camera style, color palette, textural choices, etc.

Peter Jackson: As I said earlier, I personally feel that The Hobbit can, and should have a different tone. The "tone" of these stories shouldn't be defined by the pressure our characters were under in LOTR. The world is a different place at the time of the Hobbit. The shadow is not so dark. However, what should stay the same is the reality of Middle-earth, and the integrity we bring to it as film makers.

Me: I like this decision too. As I've mentioned in past posts, The Hobbit is certainly lighter in spirit than The Lord of the Rings, but the difference is most pronounced at the outset of the story. Over the course of The Hobbit a tonal shift occurs which moves the tale into a darker, more complex, adult story. Tolkien later stated that he would have written it with the same voice he employed in LOTR, given a second chance, so I have no quarrel here.

Merlkir: Any ideas about the talking wargs? the wargs in hobbit are remarkably different from the "hyena" ones in the LOTR movies..

Guillermo del Toro: Absolutely: they will be different from the Hyena ones established in the Trilogy- they will be faithful to the creatures in the book and will be redesigned accordingly.

Me: So far, del Toro is batting 1.000. Wargs should be wolf-ish, albeit larger and more menacing and a bit more bestial. The wargs from LOTR (the films) were certainly nasty, but they weren't very wolf-like.

WetaHost: I always thought creating Gollum would pose a great artisic challenge to the artists whose job it would be to adapt the Lord of the Rings. With the Hobbit I believe Smaug will pose one of the great challenges. Now we have all seen dragons in movies. But for the Hobbit I personally am excepting nothing less than unbelievable . Were will you go for inspiration? What styles will the art dirction look at? Personally I can see a lot being done with the setting from Pan's Labyrinth. Thank you and good luck to you all.

Guillermo del Toro: This is a big one-- Allow me to quote form my random responses at Onering.net… I am a big Dragon fan. I've said it before- And I was fortunate enough to be born a Dragon in the Chinese Horocope... And although its always impossible to agree on the "greatest" of anything, I bring forth these two as the main film contenders for that title: Eyvind Earle / Disney's Maleficent dragon ( a triumph of elegance of color and design) and Vermitrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer. In my opinion, every other design has borrowed heavily from these two. I plan to create something new and groundbreaking. Smaug should not be "the Dragon in the Hobbit movie" as if it was just "another" creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be "The DRAGON" for all movies past and present. The shadow he cast and the greed he comes to embody- the "need to own" casts its long shadow and creates a thematic / dramatic continuity of sorts that articulates the story throughout- In that respect, Smaug the CHARACTER is as important, if not more important, than the design. The character will emerge form the writing- and in that the Magnificent arrogance, intelligence, sophistication and greed of Smaug shine through- In fact, Thorin's greed is a thematic extension of this and Bilbo's "Letting go" and his noble switching of sides when the dwarves prove to be in the wrong is its conceptual counterpart (that is a hard one to get through, Bilbo's heroism is a quiet, moral one) and the thematic thread reaches its climax in the Bilbo / Thorin death bed scene.

Anyway, back to Smaug: One of the main mistakes with talking dragons is to shape the mouth like a snub Simian one in order to achieve a dubious lip-synch. .. A point which eluded me particularly in Eragon, since their link is a psychic one. To me, Smaug is the perfect example of a great creature defined by its look and design, yes, but also, very importantly, by his movement and -One little hint- its environment - Think about it... the way he is scaled, moves and is lit, limited or enhanced by his location, weather conditions, light conditions, time of the year, etc. That's all I can say without spoilers but, if you keep this curious little summary you'll realize several years form now that those things I had in my mind ever since doodling the character as a kid had solidified waaay before starting the shoot of the film. A big tool is also how and when he is fully revealed. I could give you specifics- beat-by-beat in fact (I'm geeking out to do it), but... I will say no more in order to save you from ruthless spoilerage (we have a few years to go, you know...?) and increased anxiety. Let me, however, say that this is actually one of the points I feel most enthusiastic about. As to his voice- well, each reader has a Smaug voice in his / her head, just like you always do when "hearing" a great character in a book. I have mine... and it will be revealed in time...

Me: del Toro is the man--dropping a Vermithrax reference into the interview was totally unexpected and very cool. Dragonslayer is one of the best fantasy movies to emerge from the 1980's and that decade's pile of wildly awful and great fantasy films, and Verithrax remains my favorite wyrm put to film. If The Hobbit can improve on him we'll be in for some great scenes, indeed. More to the point: It is nice to hear del Toro put into words that he's drawing on Dragonslayer for some degree of inspiration and is chomping at the bit to get his vision on film.

WetaHost: Hello Mr. Jackson and Mr. Del Toro! Thank you very much for this time. My question is one that I think you will hear alot of from many of us...from what material will you pulling the second movie from? I know it'll be great with you two on board, but I am mighty curious. I am a huge fan of both of you and I look foward to more Tolkien films!

Guillermo del Toro: The idea is to find a compelling way to join THE HOBBIT and FELLOWSHIP and enhance the 5 films both visually an in their Cosmology. There’s omissions and material enough in the available, licensed material to attempt this. The agreement is, however, that the second film must be relevant and emotionally strong enough to be brought to life but that we must try and contain the HOBBIT in a single film.

Peter Jackson: I'm really looking forward to developing Film Two. It gives us a freedom that we haven't really had on our Tolkien journey. Some of you may well say that's a good thing of course! The Hobbit is interesting in how Tolkien created a feeling of dangerous events unfolding, which preoccupy Gandalf. There's an awful lot of incident that happens during that 60 year gap. At this stage, we're not imagining a film that literally covers 60 years, like a bio-pic or documentary. We would figure out what happens during that 60 years, and choose one short section of time to drop in and dramatise for the screen. I'm really interested in how it effects The Hobbit - do we show what happens to Gandalf during his trips away? We'll see. We may well have seeds for Film Two that we'll subtly sow during The Hobbit.

Me: Pretty much a non-answer to my biggest question. Film two could be a great and worthy addition to the series, or frankly, it could veer into disaster. Without a strong, central narrative from Tolkien to draw upon, I fear that the latter is more likely. And no offense to del Toro, Jackson, or the other wonderful writers on this project, but Tolkien is the wellspring from which your movies--and financial and artistic success--flow. Again, the best parts of the LOTR films were straight from or closely aligned with Tolkien. The handful of failures--shield surfing, Aragorn over the cliff, etc.--were deviations.

WetaHost: Considering that you're stretching The Hobbit into 2 movies can we assume that Beorn will be featured and will not be given the Tom Bombadil treatment?

Guillermo del Toro: I may be in the minority, but I absolutely LOVE Beorn and I intend to feature him in the films. BTW I also like TB quite a bit…

Me: Okay, back to the good. I love Beorn too, and it sounds like he'll be in the films--unless Jackson and Boyens rip the decision from del Toro's hands.

WetaHost: I'd comment on the awesomeness of director choice, but I'm sure that gets old. Concerning The Hobbit and the numerous Dwarves, I was wondering if all of them are going to find their way into the film. In Lord of the Rings, you had 9 in the Fellowship, but you had three movies to flesh them out. In the Hobbit, you have 13 Dwarves and one film to throw them all in. I'm definitely hoping to see all 13 make their way in, but what are you doing about this?

Guillermo del Toro: Tolkien wrote 13 dwarves and I intend to use 13 dwarves. I am, in fact, thrilled to keep them all and have them be distinguishable and affecting as characters. Much of the drama and emotion in the last third of the book and film will come from them.

Me: This may seem like a minor issue, but I'm glad that del Toro will be retaining all 13 dwarves. It's going to be difficult to write in 13 short, stumpy men early into the script and make them unique and accessible to the audience, and it would probably be easy to cut the number down to a manageable 6 or 7. But again, more Tolkien=better (keep repeating that mantra).

WetaHost: My question is, when Del Toro has acknowledged his disdain for Hobbits and "sword and sandals" fantasy, how can he do justice to the movie? Why can't Peter direct it himself after The Lovely Bones? He can direct these 2 movies and then direct the 3rd Tintin movie.

Guillermo del Toro: Okay- If by “Sword and Sandal” you mean “Sword and Sorcery” I stand by the general lines of my statement in 2006. But allow me to reproduce the following paragraph from ONERING.net and expand it- Since the age of 4 I became an avid reader and collector of books; manuscripts, pamphlets, first editions, small press or worn-down paperbacks... they all find a home at my library which has grown so cumbersome and obtrusive that I had to move to a separate home from the family one... For many decades my main area of interest has been horror fiction: Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, MR James, LeFanu, etc and classic Fairy tales and literature about the engines of Myth: unabridged Grimm, Andersen, Wilde, Bettelheim, Tatar, etc.

Now and then I indulge in Science Fiction (not hardware oriented but more humanistic things) and thus I count Bradbury, Ellison, Sturgeon and Matheson amongst my favorites. My area of interest gets much narrower when we deal with another genre... the genre that is shelved under Fantasy. As a youngster I read Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Lloyd Alexander, Fritz Leiber, Marcel Schwob, RE Howard and a few others.

Nevertheless I was never propelled into an aleatory addiction to sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery or indiscriminate fantasies about magical this or that- Like any other genre or subgenre there's a great abundance that makes it hard to discern when a new "trilogy" or "chronicle" comes from as genuine a place as Tolkien's or derives from genuine fervor -religious or otherwise- like C.S. Lewis' did. But here I am now: reading like a madman to catch up with a whole new land, a continent of sorts- a Cosmology created by brilliant philologist turned Shaman. As if he grasped an existing universe outside our Platonic cave, Tolkien channels an entire world, weaving expertly from myth and lore. The oustanding virtue is that all this scholarly erudition doesn't reduce his tales to mere Taxidermy. He achieves an Alchemy all of his own: he writes new life in the freshly sculpted clay of his creatures.

I have, through the years become familiar with the very roots of Tolkien's myths and the roots of Fafhrd or Elric or Hyperborea and many a time I have relished the intricate ways in which demonic wolves, shape-shifter and spindly-limbed pale warriors can be woven into those many tales that become, at the end, the single tale, the single saga- that of what is immortal in us all. In creating Pan's Labyrinth I drank deep of the most rigid form of Fairy Lore and tried to contextualize the main recurrent motifs in an instinctive rhyme between the world of fantasy and the delusions of War and Politics (the grown man's way of playing make-believe) and in re-reading THE HOBBIT just recently I was quite moved by discovering, through Bilbo's eyes the illusory nature of possession, the sins of hoarding and the banality of war- whether in the Western Front or at a Valley in Middle Earth. Lonely is the mountain indeed.

When that statement was made- at different times during PANS LABYRINTH’s promotion, many a time I made the distinctive call to say that although I had not read Tolkien outside THE HOBBIT I had been fascinated by the Trilogy films. A statement that I already had the chance to make in 2005 when PJ, Fran and I met about HALO. So, no, generally I am NOT a “Sword and Sorcery” guy or a “Fantasy” guy- By the same token, I'm not a sci-fi guy but I would make a film based on Ellison in a second- or on Sturgeon or Bradbury or Matheson. I'm not into Barbarians with swords but i would kill to tackle Fafhrd and Grey Mouse... and so on and so forth... I'm a believer but not a Dogmatic.

Allow me to put a final, finer point to our discussion. The aesthetics of HELLBOY II are completely Pop and color-saturated, much more comic book / modern than I would ever use in THE HOBBIT but- I spend two years creating a world of Fairies, Elves, Trolls, etc Two Years. A career / creative decision that precedes any inkling of THE HOBBIT. I wrote the script years before I met with PJ or Fran. In other words I dedicated the last 6 years of my career (between PL and HBII) to create Fantastical world inhabited by Fairies, Fauns, Ogres, Trolls, Elves, etc In that respect- I guess I am a Fantasy guy when the particular world appeals to me. Back in the Jurassic Period (1992 / 1993) when CRONOS won the Critic’s Week at Cannes I was referred to as an “art house guy”- I followed that with a giant cockroach movie that proved successful enough to spawn two sequels and allow me to co-finance THE DEVILS BACKBONE which send me back to being an “art house guy”. Then I did BLADE II and people thought of me as an “Action guy”- PJ went through a similar mercurial career with HEAVENLY CREATURES, BAD TASTE, DEAD ALIVE, etc I squirm away from a tag and I hope I can avoid being just a “Fantasy guy” after PL, HBII and H… I do the tales I love (regardless of what shelf Barnes & Noble classifies the book under) and I love the HOBBIT. I love it enough to give it half a decade of my life and move half a world away to do it.

Me: Another big question I wanted answered, and I'm glad that del Toro took it on, even if his answer is not completely satisfying (and a bit prepared). I think I know where he's coming from--he's not a "sword and sorcery" fan, but rather a supporter of stories with resonance and meaning regardless of the forms they take. I respect that, even though I don't like when folks try to place themselves above particular genres. You don't have to read every derivative series ever written (Dennis McKiernan, I'm looking at you) in order to be a fantasy fan, but there's also no shame in respecting the fantasy genre as a place where terrific authors have worked, great stories are told, and lasting myths are made. I think he mostly did that here.

Summation: Del Toro won some major points with me in this interview and my faith in The Hobbit has been re-energized.


Terry L said...

Yes, this assuages some of my fears as well. I was almost ready to refuse to see _The Hobbit_ film after Del Toro's disparaging remarks on sword & sorcery (both because it disparaged the genre itself and because actually Tolkien is _not_ sword & sorcery and he ought to know that if he's going to do the movie), but have more faith in him now.

As to the whole 2 movie thing: as you say this could go either way. There is, however, a fair bit of good 'canonical' material, esp. in _Unfinished Tales_ that could be used to flesh it out and tie it to the LoTR movies without veering too far from Tolkien's vision. How cool would it be to see Gandalf meeting Thrain in the Necromancer's dungeons and getting the key and map from him? Also, we could probably get a glimpse of Aragorn patrolling the Shire with his Dunedain after Bilbo returns and see the White Council deliberate on the return of the Shadow (and drive him from Mirkwood!), more Christopher Lee!

Falze said...

"It's going to be difficult to write in 13 short, stumpy men early into the script and make them unique and accessible to the audience"

We'll see. Heck, when I walked out of FOTR I couldn't tell the difference between the Aragorn character and the Boromir character. They were both just long haired unshaved guys to me at the time. It's only after future viewings and the other movies that I began to be able to tell the 2 of them apart. 13 Dwarves? No wonder Rankin/Bass put some of them in scarves. Hopefully we're not just in for 13 Gimli's, staggering about drinking ale, farting with a beardful of foam.

As for McKiernan, I'm not sure you can call the Iron Tower trilogy 'derivative'. Blatant rip-off is closer to the mark. However, after getting his sea legs under him the rest of his Mithgar series is pretty good...not earth-shattering, but pretty good. The bad guy that goes around flaying and then impaling people was pretty cool.

All in all I'm feeling a little better about The Hobbit, but still awfully dubious about #2. What are they even going to call it? The Hobbit 2? Return of the Hobbit? Bilbo Strikes Back? Return to Middle Earth To Make More Money? Not Just Another Middle Earth Movie? How are they going to fit in Jar-Jar Binks?

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, I agree that there is some great material to draw upon for Part 2 (what to call this film? Part 2 will have to do for now). You do cite some nice material here, although I doubt we'll get to see Gandalf in the Necromancer's dungeons--it appears from del Toro's and Jackson's comments that Part 2 will bridge the gap between The Hobbit and LOTR, and not delve into events that took place prior.

My fear is that, without a coherent narrative from Tolkien to base it upon, the movie could suffer. But I freely admit that I could be wrong--heck, I thought that LOTR could never be filmed in a way that did it justice, but Jackson pulled it off. Here's hoping that he--and del Toro--can find the magic again.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, yes, the naming of Part 2 will be tricky. Probably something like "Prelude to the Great War" or "The rise of the shadow" will be it (hopefully not Bilbo Strikes Back :))

Also, agreed about the dwarves and their potrayal. One of my knocks of LOTR (which I believe I mentioned in my review of the films elsewhere on this blog) was the generally shoddy treatment of Gimli. I realize that long, tense movies like LOTR need moments of levity to break them up, but Jackson more or less reduced Gimli to a comic device with one too many belching/dwarf tossing jokes. I think that the portrayal of Thorin--stubborn, prideful, a trifle headstrong, but ultimately repentant--will be critical, and the actor will have to have some chops. Good casting will be key.

Andy said...

Replying to this late, but considering the actions of Christopher Tolkien, I'll be very surprised if Film 2 uses any Tolkien material. While the film rights to The Hobbit and LOTR were sold by his dad way back, Christopher is the one who controls stuff like The Silmarilion and Unfinished Tales and considering how much he resents the films (not to mention that he's suing the studio over screwy accounting), I don't think he'll allow the Hobbit filmmakers to use any of that.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Andy, that's actually a very interesting comment. I have read that Christoper Tolkien does hold the rights to all of his father's works outside of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

I wonder if the material in the appendices of Return of the King is fair game, however? If I recall correctly, Tolkien (J.R.R.) describes many of the events after the War of the Ring in the appendices to ROTK, and perhaps this is the source (and the loophole) that will allow Jackson/del Toro to make film 2.